Thursday, 21 November 2019

Party leaders reading picture books

I was skimming through the election news yesterday when I came across this photo of Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson reading a picture book to school children on the Guardian website.

I recognised the illustrator as Guy Parker-Rees and Guy identified the book as The Chimpanzees of Happy Town written by Giles Andreae. It's the story of Chutney the chimp who inspires his fellow chimpanzees to rise up against an oppressive mayor and transform their grey, cheerless town of Drabsville to the colourful Happy Town of the title. I can't help feeling that this book was not chosen at random!

Primary schools are popular campaign stops for party leaders eager to show that they have their finger on the pulse of the nation's school system and I suspect that picture book readings are often employed to ensure some level of engagement in what might otherwise be an awkward interaction between politician and pupils.

The Jo Swinson photo reminded me that an eagle-eyed friend had spotted the then opposition leader David Cameron reading Someone Bigger by me and Adrian Reynolds to a group of pre-schoolers in a BBC news report in 2008. This story is about a small boy whose repeated attempts to take control of a runaway kite eventually prove successful.

So, with an election looming, I thought I'd highlight the picture books other party leaders have read to school children. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about whether their choice of story is intended to convey a message.

Here's Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn reading We're Going on a Bear Hunt. This modern classic, adptated from a US folk song by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, is about a family that sets out on a long and arduous quest to capture a bear, only to beat a hasty retreat when they finally encounter it.

Here's Conservative Leader Boris Johnson reading Shhh! by Sally Grindley and Peter Utton. This is another quest tale, only this time the journey is through a giant's castle. Having been dared to wake the sleeping giant, readers are encouraged to flee the castle and shut the book.

Scottish National Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon is shown here with a selection of picture books on World Book Day. I'm assuming she read at least one to the children, but unfortunately I don't know which.

I wasn't able to find any photos of any of the other UK party leaders reading picture books, so if you know of any, let me know and I might add them to this post!

It's not just UK politicians that rely on picture books to bridge the generation gap when visiting schools. US President George W. Bush is supposed to have rejected proffered books in favour of his tried and trusted read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Bush was widely mocked for claiming that Carle's story was his favourite childhood book – because it was not published until he was 23!

President Obama also preferred to stick to a tried and trusted favourite. In his case it was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. You can watch him giving a spirited rendition of the book at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll in the video below.

In these PR savvy days I assume that, if a politician does not have a tried and trusted favourite, a PR person will vet picture books before politicians are filmed reading them.

If not, I dare the next school Boris Johnson visits to give him Smriti Prasadam-Halls and Robert Starling's Brexit-inspired picture book The Little Island to share with the infants.